Nova Scotia·Opinion

Graham Steele: Bluenose II sails into strange waters

The Public Accounts Committee of the Nova Scotia legislature is the only House committee worth watching, argues political analyst Graham Steele.

It's politics putting the Bluenose II file on David Darrow's desk

Bluenose II, Nova Scotia's sailing ambassador, heads to port in Lunenburg, N.S. after sea trials on June 24, 2014. The Bluenose II has been undergoing a multi-year restoration that's been plagued by budget overruns and repeated delays, the latest caused by a problem with the vessel's steering system. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

The Public Accounts Committee of the Nova Scotia legislature is the only House committee worth watching.

At this week's committee meeting, the witness was the province's top civil servant, David Darrow, and the topic was the Bluenose II.

The Public Accounts Committee is the only committee that meets in the House chamber, the only committee that is broadcast on TV and the only committee that meets weekly. Its fundamental job is to hold the government to account for how it uses the budget approved by the legislature.

The strength of the Public Accounts Committee is that the witnesses are almost always senior civil servants, not politicians. In other words, the witnesses give answers worth listening to.

Darrow appeared alone. Unlike most witnesses, he did not bring a posse to advise and support him. This speaks to his confidence in his grasp of the details.

The news media were in full attendance. Like them, I settled in to watch accountable government in action.

It fell apart quickly.

Tim Houston, the rookie Progressive Conservative MLA for Pictou East, went straight for the partisan jugular, devoting many questions to Darrow's interactions with the premier on the Bluenose file. In opposition politics, you get a gold star if you can draw a straight line from any controversy to the premier.

Darrow said he meets frequently with the premier on the Bluenose II file — perhaps not every day, but frequently. They had last spoken about it the day before.

Houston's next set of questions were intended to trap Darrow into agreeing that the premier must lack confidence in Communities, Culture and Heritage Minister Tony Ince, and for that matter, in the rest of his cabinet.

There's no way Darrow was going to be trapped in saying something like that. Darrow's appropriate answer was, to paraphrase, "I was asked to take on the file, so I did."

Admitting error

Darrow is a serious guy, with credentials and experience. In the end, he ended up asking himself the questions the members should have asked, but didn't.

He gave a reasonably precise cost estimate to complete the work and a reasonably precise timeline for the next steps. He said his focus has been on getting the job completed, not on blame. He noted that the auditor general's report, expected in January, is likely to shed more light on exactly what happened.

Darrow also apologized for a flippant answer he had given in a media scrum — the one where he estimated the cost of fixing the rudder at between $10,000 and $1 million. He explained the circumstances of his remark and sincerely apologized for having made it.

I always trust people more when they can admit error.

Darrow's testimony at the Public Accounts Committee was a credit to the civil service.

But the real problem isn't what Darrow said. It's the fact the file's on his desk at all.

Darrow is the most senior civil servant in Nova Scotia. He is deputy minister to the premier. He is the principal liaison between the government of the day and a 10,000-member civil service. He is in charge of executing a $10-billion budget. He is the boss of the civil service bosses.

Why, then, is Darrow personally managing a specific file? There are 101 hot files that are nastier, more important and worth more money.

It is, of course, politics that puts the Bluenose II file on Darrow's desk. The McNeil government is afraid of being held politically responsible for a high-profile public project that's late and over budget. They inherited the hot potato but often the public only sees who's holding the hot potato, not who passed it.

Darrow has better things to do and so does Stephen McNeil. These two men are at the pinnacle of this vast, complex machine that we call the Nova Scotia government.

But when they get together, they are, as often as not, talking about a boat.

About the Author

Graham Steele

Political analyst

Graham Steele is a former MLA who was elected four times as a New Democrat for the constituency of Halifax Fairview. He also served as finance minister. Steele is now a political analyst for CBC News.

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